If highways are a drug, trails are treatment.

Something interesting happened during the nine years I lived outside of Ithaca – it grew a network of trails into its surrounding towns. A glance at the county’s bicycle map shows how these pedestrian friendly tendrils connecting downtown and campuses to rural hamlets. Dig deeper into the Priority Trails Plan and you will find a vision for an even more robust network of non-motorized trails.

Trails can be an important part of a treatment to our national addiction to highways. Yonah Freemark made this striking analogy on his blog, The Transport Politic:

“For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.”

Trails connect communities and open up recreational opportunities. Compared to highways, trails are a bargain (often an order of magnitude less expensive).  Trails enable physical health as people use them to walk, run, or bike.

Trails can help rekindle human connections. On a trail a group can hold a conversation without distraction. (Interestingly, social connection is seen as a treatment to drug addiction.)

While it’s common to hear objections to trail projects on the basis of increased crime or lower property values, new trails have been shown time and time again to be reliably safe and a benefit to neighbors

My experience in Ithaca

Over the past few months I’ve attempted to ride all of the trails around Ithaca. Many of these were originally rail roads that delivered goods and people to the city. The notable exception is the Cayuga Waterfront Trail which formed from a constellation of public parks and other lands bordering the southern edge of the lake.

Hills are frequently cited as a barrier for people bicycling in Ithaca. The downtown area is hemmed in on three sides by hills and some streets feel practically San Franciscan. Yet rail trails have the unique ability to tame these slopes. Railroads were planned with slopes of 2% or less. Bicyclists of any ability can conquer these gentle grades.

In many ways, the Black Diamond Trail is the premier trail in the area. It connects downtown to Taughannock Falls State Park and communities in the western half of the county. Good views of Cayuga Lake can be found as the trail climbs out of Ithaca. The trail crosses a few small creeks and waterfalls closer to the state park. The trail ends near a stunning overlook of the tallest free flowing waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

Even if you’re far away from the finger lakes you can see all the trails Tompkins County has to offer on IthacaTrails.org.

The Canadian Perspective

Gate on the Tiny Trail in Penetanguishene

On a recent trip to Ontario, I discovered a portion of the Trans-Canada Trail that came within a few kilometers of my destination. I soon found out that Simcoe County (where I was staying) had developed a series of long-distance trails that created a loop between three cities: Barrie, Orilla, Midland.

While the vision presented in maps appeared compelling, I was curious to see how it was executed. The portion I rode was gravel and had some uneven surfaces. However the trail had very dense vegetation on both sides which provided me with shade and respected the neighbors’ privacy. I only wish I had more time to explore and witness how the trail adapted to urban and rural contexts.

Trails aren’t enough

If we are going to break the highway addiction, planners will need more than trails. City planners who are serious about this challenge need to look comprehensively at policies that address walking, biking, transit, parking and other transportation issues. Trails are important, but trails alone aren’t enough.

Happy Trails!